LONDON — A British attempt to secure international agreement over possible military action in Syria appeared to be in difficulty on Wednesday after the United Nations (UN) secretary-general said chemical weapons inspectors in Damascus needed four more days to gather evidence.
British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier said Britain would present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council permanent members on Wednesday, condemning an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime and authorising "necessary steps to protect civilians".
But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against rushing to pass a resolution before UN inspectors in Syria had assessed whether chemical weapons had been used in an assault last week in eastern Damascus that killed more than 300 people and injured thousands of others.
"Let them conclude their work for four days, and then we will have to analyse scientifically with experts and then I think we will have to report to the security council for any actions," he told a press conference in The Hague on Wednesday.
Mr Cameron had earlier tweeted: "We’ve always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that."
A Downing Street statement said Wednesday’s resolution would seek authorisation under chapter seven of the UN charter, which covers acts of aggression.
Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed calls by the US, UK and France for action to be taken against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad during the country’s two-and-a-half-year civil war. Vladimir Titov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, called the UK resolution premature and urged the security council to wait until the chemical weapons inspectors had delivered their report, according to the Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier warned that a US-led military attack would "lead to the long-term destabilisation of the situation in the country and the region".
South Africa is worried by "sabre-rattling" about possible military intervention against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim said on Wednesday.
He said the current international tension was reminiscent of the western pressure at the UN which led to the 2011 overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. South Africa supported a UN Security Council resolution, which it later said was wrongly used to justify air strikes against the Gaddafi regime.
"In the Libyan example we felt that the Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) countries went beyond what was in the resolution. They were interested in regime change," Mr Ebrahim told a seminar on international justice at the University of Pretoria.
Western governments have rallied support from the Arab League and Syria’s Muslim neighbours and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member Turkey, and have begun to lay out arguments they say show that they can satisfy some criteria of international law.
Australia, which takes over the chair of the security council on Sunday, added its voice on Wednesday to the western view that continuing deadlock along Cold War lines in the top UN body would not rule out an attack on Syria.
French President Francois Hollande has cited a 2005 UN provision for action to protect civilians from their own governments, which was inspired by the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Similar arguments were used by Nato to bomb Russian ally Serbia in 1999 after the killing of civilians in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the US, UK and France were continuing preparations for limited cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime, although they have yet to release any intelligence corroborating their claims and the countries’ leaders say they have yet to make a final decision on action.
In the Syrian capital, people have begun to make preparations for the US-led action.
On Wednesday, the inspectors returned to base after resuming their investigation at the site of last week’s attack. They revisited the site after being prevented from going into the area on Tuesday due to security concerns and were shot at on their first attempt to reach the location on Monday, before returning later in the day.
The UN team is mandated to determine whether chemical weapons were used and, if so, what weapons. They have not been asked to apportion blame.
If the security council is unable to agree on a stance on Syria, some western officials have suggested the discussion could move to Nato in a move akin to the 1999 war in Kosovo, where a bombing campaign was carried out by the alliance without explicit UN backing. Nato ambassadors met in Brussels on Wednesday, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, said afterwards that he believed "information available from a wide variety of sources" pointed to the Syrian regime.
Syrian envoy to the UN Lakhdar Brahimi said on Wednesday it appeared "some kind of chemical substance was used" in the attack, but stressed it was "clear" that UN authority was needed before any military intervention.
"International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the security council," he said in Geneva. "I must say that I do know that President (Barack) Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger-happy. What they will decide I don’t know. But certainly international law is very clear."
Mr Hollande announced that his country’s parliament would debate Syria on September 4.
Jordan, a staunch American ally, said it would not be used as a launch pad for any attacks, indicating clearly that it does not want to stoke friction with its problematic northern neighbour.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and a long-time Assad ally, was quoted by the Isna state news agency as saying that a US strike would be "a disaster for the region".
Reports said that an allied attack on Syria would result in an attack on Israel. "The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region. The region is like a gunpowder store," the ayatollah said.
Financial Times, with Nicholas Kotch and Reuters